I have always felt like I am pretty knowledgeable when it comes to food, but I recently learned about preservatives and discovered I’d been giving them an unfairly bad rap. I didn’t know what benefits they provide – but now I do, thanks to a Q&A from ConAgra.
Lanie Friedman Director, Communications & External Relations at ConAgra Foods, Kelly Magurany, Principal Research Scientists- Toxicology – Food Protection and Regulatory Affairs at ConAgra Foods and Kristi Reimers, RD, PhD, Nutrition and Director of Nutrition in Research & Innovations at ConAgra Foods provided all sorts of information about all preservatives, and more specifically about antioxidants. And now I get to share all I learned with you! Here are some basic facts:
Why should we preserve our food?
- Natural color preservation
- Food waste reduction
How can we preserve our food?
- Methods like canning and freezing – even putting foods in the fridge helps preserve foods
- Ingredients can be added to every day packaged foods to help preserve them
What is an antioxidant?
- Antioxidants help prevent oxygen from damaging other molecules. Antioxidants function in the body to help protect cells, and they function in foods to protect oils from damage that leads to rancidity.
Antioxidants in the Body
- We have many antioxidants that are naturally produced in our body every day, such as after exercise; these antioxidants help fend off environmental toxins and stress on the body
- Our bodies carefully control the amount of antioxidants in our cells; we can get very sick if the normal level of antioxidants in our body becomes too low
- Some of our most important vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin C, are used in our body as antioxidants
- Body benefits of antioxidants:
- Slow the aging process
- Boost your body’s natural defense system
- Help combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases
Antioxidants in Food
- Like the vitamins in your body, certain foods contain natural antioxidants, such as polyphenols; some foods may also contain man made antioxidants
- When you open a box of food, the exposure to air can cause certain ingredients that are common in our food, like fats and oils, to spoil; the unpleasant odors and flavors that follow are sometimes called “rancidity”
- Food benefits of antioxidants:
- Prevent food from becoming rancid (spoiling), and therefore wasted
- Preserve food’s flavors
- Help preserve natural color in food
Antioxidants Naturally Found in Food
- Alpha-tocopherol (aka Vitamin E) – Found in nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables – helps to protect fats and oils in food from spoiling
- Ascorbic Acid (aka Vitamin C) – Found in citrus fruits, sometimes also called sodium ascorbate –saves breads and packaged meat from spoiling
- Citric Acid – Found naturally in citrus fruits – used to preserve sliced fruit
Man Made Antioxidants in Food
- BHT: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant is used to help maintain freshness in grain-based foods like crackers and cookies
- TBHQ: A tasteless, colorless man made antioxidant used commonly to keep vegetable oils and other packaged foods fresh
Natural v. Man Made Antioxidants
- Man made antioxidants, like BHT and TBHQ, are used because sometimes natural antioxidants throw off flavors of foods we know and love, or because a certain antioxidant might perform best with a certain food
- One type is used over another based on performance – for example TBHQ is often used in fryer oils as it is more stable at higher temperatures than BHT, thus preserving these foods more effectively
- Natural and man made antioxidants are sometimes used together in our favorite foods
- Food makers, like ConAgra Foods, choose certain preservative ingredients based on what they know will deliver the best flavor, while keeping your foods safe and fresh
Be sure and take a minute to check out this video – it’ll give you great insight into what keeps our food fresh.
And I bet you’ll be just as surprised as I was about some of the following info learned in more of the Q&A:
What do you think the most common misconception is among consumers regarding preservatives in foods?
- A misconception I most commonly see is that preservatives are unnecessary and harmful to your health. When in fact, preservatives such as antioxidants are really necessary to reduce off-taste and odors in foods caused by breakdown of cells, fats and oils.
What are the trends we are seeing with consumers and their concerns about the ingredients in their food? Are these valid concerns? Why or why not?
- Concern over the food we provide to our families is always valid so I want to make that point initially. And I applaud all the ladies on the phone for looking at this and considering it. I think it’s very important for us; however, I do see a lot of misinformation out there regarding food ingredients in the media, and I’m concerned that the public isn’t aware of the benefits, data and time spent to support their safety.
If there are natural antioxidants available, what is the need for man-made antioxidants?
- Natural antioxidants often times impart a flavor, a taste or even an odor to foods, so they are not always the best choice for us if we want to maintain the high quality of flavors that our consumers love. So we look to man-made antioxidants that are tasteless and colorless and odorless at the low levels used in food to maintain those flavors.
Preservative-Free is a major buzzword on food labels. Why is that if they are healthy for you?
- There are actually many different types of preservatives. Today, we’re focusing on antioxidants and what we know about antioxidants is that they’re very safe for use in food based on the available science.
- Kristi: As far as the healthfulness, we know that all preservatives in foods are safe. When one is misinformed and you start hearing all these things about words you can’t pronounce and are told to look for a clean label and those sorts of things, then there becomes a consumer demand for things like “preservative free”. As a company, we often times respond to that consumer demand, but it doesn’t mean we’re making a change that was health based. It’s simply making a change that is consumer demand based.
What is the difference between antioxidants and preservatives? Is it because antioxidants sound more consumer-friendly? Is there an actual difference or are they the same thing?
There is actually a difference. The difference is that preservatives identify all compounds used to preserve food with different functions. So some preservatives are used to reduce bacterial populations in food. Antioxidants are specific to oxidized damage. An antioxidant is actually a type of preservative.
The biggest thing to take away from all of this?
“Simply said, whether man-made or natural, antioxidants are used to preserve the flavor, color, and improve the shelf-life of foods. Both are evaluated for their safe use in food by scientific experts trained to understand the impact on human health. Both function to reduce rancidity in food by preventing the breakdown of fats and oils (and other compounds). Both must be used at low levels in accordance with regulatory guidelines and safety thresholds. Both must be ‘food grade’ so as not to introduce hazardous by-products or impurities in foods. Both benefit you and your family by providing food of high quality and flavor, so that you may enjoy the foods that you love!”